3 Improv Exercises Every Business Team Can Use

Taking improv classes at Second City and the Annoyance Theatre was scary, fun and full of unexpected lessons.

One of the cardinal rules of improv, which is just as relevant outside the comedy world, is the principle of “Yes, And.” No matter what your scene partner throws out to you, always accept and build on his or her idea. This technique develops richer scenes and is critical to creating trust on stage.

Beyond Fluff and Fun

Classic improv exercises have applicability to life in the business world. When properly facilitated, the exercises are a fun, energizing, low-cost way to expand comfort zones, engage in productive conversations and uncover important team insights.

The key to success is planning, organization and business relevance.

  • Establish clear learning objectives that relate to the team’s work situation.
  • Create a script and clear directions to minimize confusion in the set-up.
  • Prepare thoughtful debrief questions and key points that directly connect to the group’s work environment and team dynamics.

3 Favorite Low-Cost, No-Prop Improv Exercises

 

1. Make a wave

Themes: how to start a change and keep up the momentum, anyone can start a change, overcoming communication challenges

Duration: 5 minutes

Number of participants: minimum of 10

Directions:

  1. Ask group if anyone has ever participated in or observed a “wave” at a sporting event. Most people will nod or raise their hand.
  2. Ask someone to describe a wave and how it works. (A few people will stand and throw their arms up, it takes awhile to catch on, eventually the wave makes its way around multiple sections or maybe around the stadium.)
  3. Instruct group to create a wave that travels around the room. The wave must not skip a person or group of people. Start over until the wave makes it around to each person. Add an extra challenge — no talking!

Debrief:

  • What happened? (confusion, didn’t know where to start, no formal leader)
  • What was most difficult? (not being able to talk, we weren’t in a perfect circle)
  • What did you do to achieve success? (lots of eye contact and hand motions, didn’t give up, got better each time as we learned what worked and what didn’t)
  • What parallels do you notice between making a wave and making change in your team or organization? (works best if it’s organic and non-hierarchical, everyone needs to be on board if it’s going to work, the value of trial-and-error)

2. “Yes, but” vs. “Yes, and”

Themes: accepting and moving ideas forward, building on ideas rather than shutting them down, releasing the collective intelligence of the group, collaboration, problem solving

Duration: 15 minutes

Number of participants: minimum of 2

Directions:

  1. Divide the group into pairs.
  2. Explain that Person A throws out an idea or solution. (e.g. “We need better customer metrics.”) Person B answers “Yes, but … ” and states why it won’t work, or a challenge to the idea or solution. (e.g. “Yes, but our technology is so out-of-date.”) Next, B makes a counter suggestion. (e.g. “We have to reassess our entire business strategy and make sure we’re better aligned to our customers.”). Person A responds with “Yes, but …” and a reason or challenge to the idea (e.g. “Yes, but senior leaders need to drive this effort.”)
  3. Repeat 2-4 rounds.
  4. Explain part two of the exercise: Person A makes a suggestion, however B answers with “Yes, and …” and adds to the idea. A responds positively to B’s addition and answers with another “Yes, and ..” and makes an extra suggestion to support the previous idea. (e.g. “Let’s make our team meetings more effective.” “Yes, and let’s schedule them for 45 minutes, instead of 60 minutes.” “Yes, and let’s send out a brief bullet point agenda the day before.” “Yes, and let’s make anyone who’s late sing a song.”)
  5. Be clear on the rules; No arguing or questioning ideas. No hesitating or trying to find the perfect thing to add. Simply jump in with “yes, and” and whatever comes to mind.
  6. Repeat 2-4 rounds.

Debrief:

  • What was different about the two versions? What was different about the quality of ideas?
  • What are the situations that “yes, but” is most likely to occur? What happens when “yes, but” becomes the default?
  • How can you encourage more “yes, and” in your team interactions?
  • Additional points: “But” is another way of saying no, which is often our go-to response. It shuts down the problem-solving and perpetuates circular conversation. With “Yes, and…”, people feel heard, valued, and part of the solution. It’s a more open and positive approach to disagreement and conflict. “Yes, and…”demonstrates you are listening and understand.

3. Physical Telephone

Themes: difficulties with “cascading” communication, overcoming communication obstacles, importance of simple and clear messages

Duration: 15 minutes

Number of participants: minimum of 6

Directions:

  1. Group 6-8 participants together in a line facing the same direction. Extras can sit out and observe, and switch into the line in the next round.
  2. Walk to the back of each line, tap the last person on the shoulder, and model three distinct (non-offensive) physical gestures. Use different sides of the body and large movements. Avoid motions that people are already familiar with like waving or thumbs up.
  3. Without talking, the last person in line turns around, taps the person standing in front of them and demonstrates the gestures. When finished, they step out of the line and observe. (The gesturer can not repeat the movements. The person in front must perform whatever motions they remember the best they can.)
  4. Continue down the line until the gestures reach the person at the front of the line.
  5. Ask the person at the front of the line to join you as you together face the group and simultaneously perform the respective gestures. (The final gestures will likely be very different from the original gestures.)
  6. Repeat by mixing up the order of the line.
  7. Optional: In the final round, remove the constraints so participants can talk and/or repeat gestures for clarification.

Debrief:

  • What happened? Why did that happen?” (It was hard to remember, I made up what I forgot, the gestures changed each time, one minor change can have a big impact on the final result)
  • How is this similar to the way communication flows in your team/organization? (we rely on the hierarchy to give us information, we’re often out of touch with all stakeholders)
  • When we remove constraints (allowed to talk/repeat gestures), what impact /did that have?
  • What are the pitfalls of “cascading” communication, i.e. information that must be passed down from one person or group to another? Why do we rely on this in organizations? What are other methods to ensure people get accurate information?

Marta Steele is a partner at PeopleResults. Her two favorite improv shows in Chicago are Messing with a Friend and The Improvised Shakespeare Co. Connect with her on Twitter @MartaSteele.

Marta Steele